Ice Network

Advice for today's Olympians, from Olympians

Legends stress importance of staying focused, avoiding outside noise
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Emily Hughes (left) and Kimmie Meissner were enamored by the grand spectacle of the Olympic Winter Games when they competed in 2006. -Getty Images

For figure skaters, as for athletes in many other sports, the Olympics is unlike any other competition in which they have ever participated. Figure skaters hardly compete in obscurity during the rest of each four-year cycle, but even the U.S. championships or world championships pales in comparison with the mammoth spectacle that is the Olympic Games.

Vancouver veterans Meryl Davis, Charlie White, Jeremy Abbott and Evan Bates will probably be sharing some insights with the "newbie" members of the Olympic figure skating team on how to cope with the size and scope of the event. Below, some other famous Olympians give the benefit of their experience for the first-timers.

Ekaterina Gordeeva and her partner and husband, Sergei Grinkov, were the 1988 and 1994 Olympic pairs champions.

"The Olympics are very difficult," Gordeeva said. "It can be overwhelming, but it's a very exciting time, a very special time in your life. There is the press all the time. To be able to perform well, you have to concentrate and be a little bit conservative before your competition. Just because the press makes such a big deal out of each person who is going to Olympics, you have to close yourself in a box to be able to skate well to perform your best.

"You have to plan almost every day. You go off your schedule sometimes because you want to go see a hockey game, and then the next day you're performing and you get out of your zone. You kind of have to put yourself in a really concentrating mood. And after that, obviously, you can do whatever you want! But don't stress yourself out because it's a great, great time, and you have to enjoy it."

Rachael Flatt competed at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, finishing seventh. There are two things she says she wishes she had been prepared for.

"The uproar in the arena, especially during the six-minute warm-up, is unreal," Flatt said. "I am usually incredibly focused and not a lot gets to me, but the tangible excitement and the deafening noise definitely shook my concentration."

Flatt advises packing light.

"The only clothes to bring are skating clothes, jeans and a nice dress because you get so many clothes during processing. We got at least three huge suitcases stuffed full of new attire, and I had packed two other suitcases with my skating stuff and my regular clothes!"

Lastly, she recommends capturing the experience to remember later.

"Take as many pictures as you can because with all the excitement and energy, the experience flies by," she said. "I wish I had taken more when I was there, or at least had written down some funny stories."

Tai Babilonia and her partner, Randy Gardner, competed at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, finishing fifth. (They withdrew during the six-minute warm-up for the short program in 1980 in Lake Placid.) Babilonia cautions Olympians to limit their interactions with media.

"There is a lot of craziness now, even more than back in 1980," Babilonia said. "We had press, but it's a hundred times more intense now. I don't know how they do it! One of the last things that I told Ashley [Wagner] was, 'Learn to say "No."' It is overwhelming, and they do have to focus."

Dorothy Hamill became America's sweetheart after she won the gold medal in Innsbruck in 1976. She also cautions Olympians to say 'No' if the media is too distracting.

"Embrace every second of this new adventure, but stay focused," Hamill said. "You're there to get the job done. Interviews can wait. If it feels not right, and you feel it's taking away from your training, it's OK to say no."

In the age of Twitter, Hamill knows that today's competitors have to be more careful than ever.

"Back in the '70s, there were newspaper reporters and television reporters," she said. "Now, with social media making everything instantaneous, that was something I never had to worry about. The competitors are watched under a microscope, and they have to be so careful."

Hamill also notes that the Olympics is unlike other competitions in that all sports are there together.

"The size of the Olympic Games is just beyond," she said. "It's great to be able to watch the other athletes compete if you can. It's the one time you'll have access to the Olympics that no one ever gets. I remember being in the village and being elated, watching the skier and speed skaters come down after their day, and meeting them in the cafeteria. There's a fine line between taking care of yourself and doing what you need to, and taking the opportunity to watch the other competitors if you can."

2006 Torino teammates Emily Hughes and Kimmie Meissner reminisced about their Olympic experiences. They remembered the noise of the cameras in the arena being louder than they had ever heard.

"When I took the starting pose for my short program, I heard 'Click-click-click-click-click-click-click.' I never heard anything like it," Hughes said. "But then, when the music started, it all went away and it was just like any competition. There's a short, there's a long, there's practice ice; it's just that the audience is a hundred times larger."

"The first practice, that was the biggest shock to me," Meissner said. "I got out there and I was like, 'I'm at the Olympics!' And I kind of lost it. I remember looking at the boards, and then I was like, 'Focus, focus, focus!' So, at the first practice, kind of have your head about you."

"I remember the first practice, and there were Olympic rings on the ice," Hughes said. "I skated over them, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm here; I'm at the Olympics!' And I looked around and said, 'All right, gotta practice.'"

"I was shocked at the chaos of the opening ceremonies," Meissner said. "I actually got lost after it was over. I ended up with the hockey team on the wrong bus. So, be prepared for the chaos of the opening ceremonies, and the closing, too. The closing was freezing -- my toes were frozen."

"I know it kind of sounds vague, but really enjoy it," Hughes went on. "You get one shot. If you're lucky, you get more than one, but there were times when I would go into the Olympic Village cafeteria and sit next to the best luge person or the best skier, and that's never going to happen again. It's such a special event that you're going to: You made it."

Yuka Sato competed at the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, finishing seventh and fifth.

"The Olympics is a very special place to be," she said. "This is a lifetime achievement. Everybody prepares for it very seriously, and it's a very special experience. If it happens for you, it's something that'll always stay with you. Working towards that goal makes you better. Have a balance; don't say this is the only thing that you're after. Enjoy the process; enjoy the journey of working towards that goal."

Robin Cousins won the gold medal in 1980 in Lake Placid. He was a Team Great Britain ambassador in 2012, and he's working with the team for 2014 as well.

"What's different about the Olympics is it's spread out," Cousins said. "Your event may not run the way you're used to. You might not have access to people the way you usually do. We've talked a lot about social media being your only way to have access to your parents and your friends. You have to be incredibly selfish, but for all the right reasons. You can't worry about 'Did so-and-so get their tickets for the short program?'.

"Sochi is extremely small, so there won't be that incredible chasm between the snow sports and the ice sports. It will feel a lot more intimate. If you've never been to an Olympics before, try to talk to as many people as you can, but don't allow yourself to be swamped by that feeling of being part of the village.

"I suppose the other important thing is that nothing will happen to you on the ice in Sochi that hasn't happened when you trained," he continued. "All you can do is be as prepared as you can be to have gotten to the Olympics. Look at what you had to do to make that happen, and you'll have to do the same to get through this. And just be proud that you got there at all."